Thursday, July 24, 2014
VIY (1967) movie review
Viy (aka Vij) (1967) d. Konstantin Ershov / Georgi Kropachyov (Russia)
This breathtaking flight of dark fantasy, derived from the same Nikolai Gogol story that inspired Mario Bava’s gothic masterpiece Black Sunday, albeit wildly different in tone and content, combines the double charms of rural folktales and overt theatricality. You’re forgiven if you haven’t already seen or heard of it, but after viewing, you’ll likely be wondering, as I did, how it took this long and why someone didn’t clue you in sooner.
Rambunctious seminarian Khoma (Leonid Kuravlyov) travels with two companions into the countryside for a 19th century version of spring break (warning: lock up your chickens). They entreat shelter at an elderly farmer’s homestead, who allows them to stay in her barn. That night, the old crone visits the student and, in a marvelous sequence, mounts his shoulders and forces him to run and then fly into the purple-hued sky.
He extricates himself, but is shocked to see her unconscious body assume the form of a youthful woman – traveling on to the next village, he learns that the local lord’s daughter has recently passed away . . . and that she’s a, ahem, dead ringer for the witch’s comelier visage. Even more alarming, the recently deceased has left explicit wishes for Khoma to perform the three-night ritual of sitting with her corpse! The student reluctantly accepts the assignment, and is subsequently assailed from sundown to daybreak by all forms of demons, devilry, and the blackest of magic.
Like any good illusionist show, there are times when we can see how certain of special effects supervisor Aleksandr Ptushko’s tricks are accomplished, but still marvel at their ingenuity. Likewise, our ovations are all the more enthusiastic when no explanation for the amazing visual stunts can be offered – it’s like, well, magic.
Cinematographers Viktor Pishchalnikov and Fyodor Provorov’s whirling imagery during the more fantastic scenes is all the more impressive considering how well they capture the dull and staid day-to-day life of the villagers. (Although, there are an impressive array of beards and eccentric hairstyles upon which their lenses lovingly linger – follicular special effects in and of themselves.)
The film, only 72 minutes in length, maintains a leisurely pace, like a well-seasoned yarn told around the fire. Sadly, it remains well below most horror and fantasy fans’ radars, despite being championed in recent years by savvy reviewers and showcased in Steven J. Schneider’s hefty tome, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. It’s available now on DVD or on YouTube with English subs. Check it out and thank me later.
EDIT: A 3D remake was apparently released in Russia this January, with a sequel already announced. While it has yet to make its way overseas, we’ll see if it helps to raise the original’s profile.